Custer man sentenced for repeated sexual abuse of children

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A Custer man will spend the next several years in prison for sexually abusing five women when they were children.

Robert Erick Kruse, 52, was sentenced Wednesday in Whatcom County Superior Court to five years in prison for one count of first-degree child molestation that covered four victims. Kruse entered an Alford Plea in November, where he admitted a jury would likely find him guilty, but still maintains his innocence. The plea is still a conviction. Kruse will also have to register as a sex offender.

Because of the offense Kruse committed, he was given an indeterminate sentence. This means he has to serve the minimum five years in prison, but could be held for life, pending review by the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board. Once Kruse has served most of his time, the board will review Kruse’s offense, his behavior in the prison system and several tests will determine whether he would be safe to be at large in the community after he completes his sentence. If not, he will be in prison and be evaluated at a later date. This can continue for life as part of Kruse’s indeterminate sentence.

Throughout the case, Kruse’s charges changed several times. Prior to the plea deal, he was charged with one count of first-degree child rape (or in the alternative first-degree child molestation), three counts of second-degree child molestation, two counts of first-degree child rape and one count of first-degree child molestation.

At Kruse’s sentencing, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey acknowledged the six-year age of the case, but said it took a strong girl, who is now a young woman, to speak up about an adult who abused her in the middle of the night to start the case. Richey asked for a fiveyear sentence for Kruse.

We “negotiated this case extensively. So that the courts understand, some of the counts are not as strong as others. (We) weighed our risks at trial and came up with a plan for a plea for one count,” Richey said. “I’m asking that the court sentence the defendant to 60 months. I think it’s an appropriate sentence for this case, for what we’ve investigated and for what we could have presented at trial.”

Kruse’s defense attorney, Phillip Tavel, said it was a difficult case for everyone involved and that many lives had been negatively affected. Tavel said that throughout the case’s history, Kruse’s defense attorney changed several times for various reasons, and that the details and circumstances of abuse the women recounted also changed. He asked the court to sentence Kruse to the lower end of the range, at a little more than four years.

“Obviously a sentencing range is there because there are different severities. There are different things that happen and the court can consider all of that, at this point going between 51 and 68 months, there’s a 17-month range,” Tavel said. “We would just ask the court to consider the fact that in the scheme of the severity of things that could have happened, this is on the lower end, regardless, in my opinion, of what the Department of Corrections is stating in their view. There are two sides and we would just ask that you take that into consideration and sentence at the low end.”

Some of the victims listened by phone, or made written statements to the court, but none spoke at Kruse’s sentencing hearing. Kruse also declined to comment at the hearing.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Robert Olson said he was alarmed by Kruse’s denial of responsibility and lack of remorse for his actions, and said this further demeans and minimizes the survivors.

Olson then spoke directly to the women.

“To each of the survivors regardless of where you may be at, I laud your courage and finally coming forward to face your abuser. The shame and guilt is not your own. I hope that you’ll be able to seek all the love and support from your friends and family and perhaps professional assistance in order so that you may close this door, make a full recovery and go on to live the very happiest lives possible,” Olson said.

Olson then handed down Kruse’s five-year sentence.

A no-contact order was put in place between Kruse and the women for life.

Five sexual abuse cases

Five women say they were sexually assaulted by Kruse between October 1998 and September 2010 while they were children, according to court records.

Because of the statute of limitations expiring, one woman’s allegations were not included in the charging documents for the case, but were outlined in the Department of Corrections report. The statute of limitations to charge a rape crime in Washington state is 10 years.

In May 2013, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Deputies responded to the report of child molestation in Custer. A woman said her 14-year-old daughter told her she had been sexually assaulted by Kruse when she was 11 or 12.

The girl, now 20, said she would frequently spend the night at the Kruse house during the summer, as she was friends with Kruse’s daughter. The girl said that Kruse’s wife worked night shifts and he was often left alone to take care of the girls, records state. The girl said that Kruse would touch her inappropriately and on one occasion, sexually assaulted her. The girl told her friend about the assault the following day, and stopped spending the night soon after, according to court records.

In July, when detectives spoke with Kruse, he denied the allegations and called the girl a thief and a liar, records state. When detectives interviewed Kruse’s wife, she was adamant that he was never alone with the girls, but later admitted there were several times where she wasn’t present and he was the only caregiver, the records show.

In September 2013, a second girl, now 24, disclosed that during summer 2006 she also spent several nights at the Kruse house. The woman’s mother had been asked by Kruse’s wife to be a character witness for him during his pending child rape case regarding the first girl’s allegations. The girl then disclosed to her mother that she too had been abused by Kruse.

On one occasion, the girl was asleep in a twin bed in her friend’s bedroom when she was awoken by Kruse cuddling her, records state. The woman said Kruse rubbed her back and then assaulted her, the records show. She told detectives Kruse said nothing and eventually left the room and never mentioned the incident.

Kruse touched the woman again on at least four other times that summer. She was 12 at the time.

A year later, in May 2014, officers spoke with the woman again about Kruse. The woman told officers that during the summer of 2005 when she stayed at the Kruse residence, Kruse touched her inappropriately multiple times.

Also in May 2014, officers spoke with a third woman, now 29, who told them that when she was six years old Kruse came to babysit her and her friends. The woman and Kruse were in the bathroom and Kruse pulled her pants and underwear down and sexually assaulted her, court records show. When Kruse was done, he told the girl not to tell anyone, and she told officers she didn’t due to shame. In high school, the girl disclosed the assault to her counselor, mom and friend.

A fourth woman who was friends with the third woman told police Kruse assaulted her, too, when she was 10. The woman, now 30, described two times when Kruse pulled down her pants and assaulted her. After the second assault, the woman told her mother. When officers spoke with the woman’s mother, she said her daughter had disclosed the abuse many years before, records state.

A fifth woman told officers she had been abused by Kruse for 10 years, starting when she was between the ages of 3 and 5, according to a pre-sentencing report. If stated Kruse and the woman knew each other when they were both young. The woman said Kruse molested her 20 or more times, including once in a pond while they were swimming, records state. She said the last assaulted occurred when she was nearly 16, according to court records. The woman’s mother confirmed that her daughter had disclosed the abuse several years prior to the other victims’ reports, the records state, but the woman’s disclosure couldn’t be included in the charging documents because of the statute of limitations.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.